An Analysis of the Democratic Debate

12 presidential candidates talk impeachment, healthcare, gun control and more

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Illustration by Lluvia Moreno

The Candidates in Descending Polling Order

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts)
  • Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont)
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, Indiana)
  • Senator Kamala Harris (California)
  • Former Tech Executive Andrew Yang
  • Senator Cory Booker (New Jersey)
  • Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (Texas)
  • Billionaire Investor Tom Steyer
  • Senator Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota)
  • Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii)
  • Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro 

For the first time in this debate cycle, the candidates identified a new front-runner and target — Senator Elizabeth Warren.

CNN and The New York Times moderated the fourth Democratic Debate on Oct. 15 in Westerville, Ohio. The stage featured 12 candidates, more than any other debate so far. In previous debates, former Vice President Joe Biden was the punching bag for other candidates trying to get a foothold in the race. But on Tuesday, the tide turned.

Warren has been steadily climbing in the polls for months, while Biden’s trajectory has been the opposite — making Warren a prime target for her opponents.

During the healthcare portion of the debate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg jabbed at Warren after she neglected to answer a question about whether her “Medicare for All” plan would raise taxes on the middle class.

“Your signature is to have a plan for everything,” Buttigieg said, “except this.”

While Buttigieg’s remark earned him some applause, it was mostly a theatrical moment. Throughout the night, Buttigieg, Biden, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris each took shots at Warren, but most were vague attacks on her plans for radical change — “pipe dreams,” as Klobuchar phrased it.

While Warren neglected to answer a question about raising taxes to pay for “Medicare for All,” Senator Bernie Sanders confirmed the plan would raise taxes for the middle class. However, overall costs would decrease because copayments, drug prices and other medical costs would be greatly reduced or eliminated altogether. 

Harris also nudged her way in toward the end of the healthcare discussion.

“This is the sixth debate we have had in this presidential cycle,” Harris said, “not one word with all of these discussions about healthcare, on women’s access to healthcare. It’s outrageous.”

Harris’s comment foreshadowed later questions about candidates’ stances on preserving and expanding reproductive rights given the state of the Supreme Court and the potential precariousness of Roe v. Wade. Most candidates agreed on the need to codify Roe in Congress. Buttigieg even suggested increasing the number of justices on the Court to 15, though other candidates, namely Biden, disagreed.

Throughout the night, viewers heard candidates discuss impeachment, healthcare, the economy, income inequality, Middle East policy, gun control, opioids, tech companies, reproductive rights and party strategy. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single question about the climate crisis — something Washington Governor Jay Inslee sharply criticized on Twitter after the debate. The closest mentions came from billionaire Tom Steyer and Sanders, who invoked the Green New Deal as a way to increase jobs.

Sanders and Warren were unequivocal in their calls for a wealth tax to pay for some of their bold policy proposals. Advocating instead for income tax reform, Klobuchar accused Warren of pursuing unrealistic goals.

“Taxing income is not going to get you where you need to be in the way that taxing wealth does,” Warren said. “[…] I understand that this is hard, but I think as Democrats we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started.”

The last part of Warren’s quote represents the most significant divide among the candidates. On one side we have Sanders and Warren, who have campaigned on platforms of widespread structural change. Nearly all the other candidates have positioned themselves as more moderate, with Biden — and after this debate, maybe Buttigieg — absorbing most of the voters in that lane.

Buttigieg had one of his strongest moments of the night in a spar with former Congressman Beto O’Rourke over gun control. After O’Rourke affirmed he would confiscate AK-47s and AR-15s from anyone who doesn’t voluntarily sell them back to the government, Buttigieg said doing so would backfire and make it harder to pass any gun control legislation. O’Rourke punched back, denouncing Buttigieg’s vision as not bold enough.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage,” Buttigieg replied, receiving a strong reaction from the crowd.

The night saw much more sparring than previous debates. While some lower polling candidates like Klobuchar and O’Rourke threw a few strong punches, their polling numbers are unlikely to change after this debate.

Warren showed she could hold her own as other candidates came at her left and right. Sanders assured voters he’s fully recovered after his heart attack. Biden flew under the radar. 

Only time will tell which candidate will reign victorious, but after this debate, it’s still a three-way race between Warren, Biden and Sanders, with Buttigieg seemingly gaining ground.